The Future of the Equal Rights Amendment

When I was in third grade, my teacher asked us to come up with a current-events question and then gather opinions on the topic from several adults. In the end, we were supposed to write a report or something–I don’t remember–but I do remember the assignment as if it happened yesterday. After talking it over with my mom, I decided to ask: Should the ERA be passed? In 1977 this was a big issue, so all the adults I polled had opinions about it.

Fast-forward to today. If my niece, Lucy, who’s now in third grade, were to ask adults the same question, she’d probably get blank stares. The Equal Rights Amendment is long dead, right? While the topic was hot in the ’70s and early ’80s (Gallup polls conducted during those years found that 90 percent of adults were familiar with the ERA), today the proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing women “equality of rights under the law” has completely slipped from the radar screen. It’s a question that hasn’t been posed by the Gallup folks–not to mention little girls from small-town America–for seven years.

But all that may change soon. Inspired in part by an article published in the spring 1997 issue of William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, a campaign to reintroduce the ERA for ratification is heating up. The amendment, first written in 1923 by Alice Paul, was approved by Congress and sent to the states in 1972 with a seven-year deadline for ratification. Later, a three-year extension was passed, but by 1982, supporters had managed to sign on only 35 of the 38 states needed to add the amendment to the Constitution.

At that point, it seemed like the ERA was over. But the William and Mary article uncovered an interesting loophole, a “three-state strategy” for ratification based on the reasoning that, while the ERA had only 10 years in which to be passed, in 1992 a 203-year ratification period was accepted as valid for the Madison congressional pay-raise amendment, first introduced in 1789 by James Madison. If Congress, and, if needed, the Supreme Court, accepts the argument that passage of the Madison Amendment sets a precedent, then all ERA supporters need to do is find three more states to take the equal-rights pledge. In Congress, the issue has been kept alive for years by its chief sponsors: Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy and New York Representative Carolyn Maloney.

Ratification, of course, is easier said than done. The states left to ratify–Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia–are home to decidedly conservative legislatures, and, according to Roberta Francis, chair of the pro-ratification lobbying group ERA Summit, some opponents have already started shoring up legislative defenses against a reinvigorated push.

For instance, in Missouri, abortion opponents have organized an extensive lobbying effort against the ERA, claiming that its passage would make abortion more accessible in the state. And in 1999, the national conservative women’s organization Concerned Women for America weighed in on the issue as well. “They sent out a letter accross the country touting the group’s opposition to passage of ERA as a fund-raising strategy,” Francis said.

Still, the amendment was reintroduced into the Missouri General Assembly at the start of the 2000 session, and Missouri lobbyist Mary Mosley says the measure could finally pass this time around. According to the National Women’s Party, some of the biggest pro-ERA campaigns are being launched in Virginia and Florida, and groups have organized in Arizona, North Carolina, and Arkansas.

The key to the initiative’s success this time around, says Francis, is to reach young women and make them aware of the ERA’s viability and relevance in their lives. To that end, her organization has produced a new video, The Equal Rights Amendment: Unfinished Business for the Constitution, that they’ve been distributing to schools and other organizations.

“What this current strategy initiative is stirring up is a renewed look at the ERA, and at the fact that as we enter the new millennium we still have a constitution that does not guarantee equal rights to all American citizens on the basis of sex,” Francis says. “I’m confident that the ERA is going to be ratified sometime in the future, but in order to get there, we need to make more people aware of what’s happening, and to turn more young women on to the issue.”

That may be happening already. In Jane (Oct. 1999), 29-year-old essayist Jennifer Baumgardner picks up the torch that was nearly snuffed out back in 1982: “I was an adult before I realized that for all of the accoutrements of liberation–Ms. magazine, birth control, female doctors, astronaut Sally Ride, and, bringing us back to the present, ‘Girls Kick Ass!’ panties–women have never achieved formal equality with men,” she writes. “Simply put: We might feel equal, but we aren’t, in the eyes of the law.”

Fiery rhetoric is nice. But what about my niece? Will she be talking about the ERA on the playground next year?

Only time will tell, but odds are she’s going to hear a lot more about it in the months ahead.

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